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Wilderness Leadership – on the Job

| May 22, 2012

by Jim Bruce

Today’s reading “Wilderness Leadership – on the Jobcomes from the pens of John Kanengieter and Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin.  Kanengieter is director of leadership at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and Rajagopal-Durbin is the school’s diversity and inclusion manager and a faculty member.  NOLS is a non-profit outdoor educational school dedicated to teaching environmental ethics, technical outdoor skills, safety and judgment, and leadership on extended wilderness expeditions.

NOLS’s leadership model has five principles – practice leadership, lead from everywhere, behave well, keep calm, and disconnect to connect.  These principles seem to apply equally well in almost all leadership contexts.

Practice Leadership.  NOLS’s, and MOR’s, fundamental philosophy is that leadership can be leaned;  the key to that learning is practice.  Provide staff with more responsibility at every opportunity so that they become more comfortable making decisions – decisions based on incomplete, inconclusive, and/or contradictory data;  acting on those decisions;  and reflecting on their outcomes.  Learning comes from making many small choices along the way and from learning from failures.  To practice leadership, seize opportunities to make and learn from decisions, whenever and wherever they arise.

Lead from Everywhere.  NOLS emphasizes four leadership roles:

1.  The designated leader – takes responsibility for the group and determines how it will achieve its goals.

2.  Active followers – support the designated leader, participate in group decision making, seeking clarity and providing input.

3.  Peer leaders – take action to help one another.

4.  Self-leaders – be organized and motivated and care for yourself so that you can effectively take on any one of the other roles.

“Today’s leader is tomorrow’s follower, and yesterday’s follower is today’s leader.”  Key here is that you can make a difference no matter what your formal role is.  As a manager, your best move may be to step out of the way and let someone else take charge.

Behave well.  Get along in a diverse group, cooperate and collaborate with others, effectively resolve conflict, keep yourself and others motivated.  Build deep personal relationships and consider the fallout of your actions before you act.  Communicate.  Be empathetic.

Keep Calm.  Learn to tolerate adversity and uncertainty.  Plan for things you can control.  Let go of things you cannot control.  Expect the unexpected and maintain composure when it arrives.  As you increase your tolerance of adversity and uncertainty, you increase your comfort zone.  This increases your ability to look past danger and distraction, and focus on the important tasks at hand.

Disconnect to connect.  NOLS’s fifth leadership principle holds that from time-to-time every leader needs to disconnect, completely change the context – e.g., to take a walk – so that the brain resets, allowing you to better analyze problems, map strategies, and dream big.

So, work on these skills – practice leading every opportunity you have;  lead from everywhere, that is from where you are;  behave well;  keep calm;  and remember, disconnect to reset so that you can really connect with the issue.


Have a great week.  .  .  .     jim